Isaiah 65.1-9, Luke 8.26-39
How do you feel about chaos? Most of us probably don’t like it much. We all have different “chaos thresholds” – some people can cope with more uncertainty than others. But I guess we all like to feel we have some basic control over our lives. It’s just human – if we don’t know what’s going on, we can’t protect and look after ourselves. We don’t like chaos.
If that’s true for us it was even more true for the people of the Bible because their lives were far less predictable and controllable than ours are. Illness struck, and natural disaster, and they had no idea why. There was often nothing they could do about it. Most people didn’t have much political power either; so they were at the mercy of wars and civil strife which often had nothing to do with them.
It’s no surprise then, that in the Bible God is often portrayed as the one who brings order out of chaos. In the beginning, says the book of Genesis, “the earth was a formless void”, until God’s spirit hovered over it and began to sort out day from night, dry land from water and so on. Their faith emphasized the importance of order too. It insisted on rigorous divisions between clean and unclean foods, between ordinary time and the sacred time of the Sabbath, between Jew and Gentile. So long as you live life within the boundaries faith set, then you’d be safe, but step outside that order and anything could happen.
Today’s Gospel story is all about order and chaos. That might not be obvious at first. At first sight it just looks like another healing miracle; a man is cured of a mental illness. But that’s not how its first hearers would have understood it. They had no concept of mental illness in the sense that we do, so this man didn’t need healing. They believed he was possessed by demons, and what he needed was to be delivered from them. The people of the first century lived in a world which they believed teemed with spiritual forces, invisible beings jostling for power and control. The man whom Jesus meets amongst the tombs was being used, in their view, as a pawn in one of those unseen battles, and as a result, chaos had broken loose in his life. It’s no accident that on the way to the land of the Gerasenes Jesus had stilled a storm on the Sea of Galilee, bringing order out of chaos there, and now he was doing the same in this man’s life.
The respectable Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time would have felt that this was someone Jesus should have avoided like the plague, a living embodiment of spiritual as well as physical danger. Actually Jesus shouldn’t have even been in the neighbourhood in their view. The land of the Gerasenes was in Gentile territory across the Sea of Galilee – not somewhere a good Jew should willingly go – the fact that they are keeping pigs gives that away. It was an area where there were lots of Roman troops garrisoned too – no wonder this man calls himself Legion, the largest unit of the Roman army. His land has been invaded, and now he feels his soul has been invaded as well. Pigs, Romans, demons … everything about this story screams uncleanness, disorder, chaos. But there is Jesus, right in the thick of it, because that is where those who need him most are to be found. He doesn’t sit afar off in safety, waiting for people to sort themselves out, clean themselves up, make themselves presentable and come to him. If they could do that, they wouldn’t need his help. He goes into the heart of their chaos and darkness to bring them the peace they can’t find for themselves.
We are used to these stories, used to seeing Jesus in the Gospels going among the outcasts, but my experience is that though we can accept that as something he did long ago for other people, many of us struggle to imagine that he wants to do that here and now in our own lives. It’s one thing to read of him going to a wild man in the wild places of Gerasa. It is quite another to let him come into the chaos and the mess of our own lives. And everyone’s life has those places, places of which we feel ashamed, even if there is nothing to feel ashamed of, places where we feel out of control and helpless. We feel we can’t let God – or anyone else – anywhere near us. Just when we most need help, we cut ourselves off from it. We take ourselves off to live among the tombs, among the dead remains of our hopes and dreams, rather than admitting that we are struggling.
The message of the Gospel though is that God isn’t afraid of our chaos -the chaos within us or around us. It doesn’t repel him. It doesn’t defeat him, and far from wanting to avoid it, it is the very place he most wants to be, bringing us peace, reassuring us that whatever happens, there is nothing that will cause him to turn away from us when we need him.